Law Schools

Law Grads Who Fail the Bar Have a Difficult First Five Years, Then Spring Back

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What has happened to the estimated 150,000 law grads who failed to pass the bar exam?

A UCLA School of Law researcher who set out to answer the question found that these bar-exam failures had staying power, faring more poorly than even college graduates in the first five years after graduation but springing back in the later half of their careers.

Jane Yakowitz, director of a project at UCLA law school that studies affirmative action preferences in higher education, summarizes her findings in a new research paper (PDF). She found that five years out of law school, law grads who fail the bar lag behind lawyers in terms of earnings, employment stability, and even marriage and divorce rates. They also do worse than college graduates who never went to law school.

“But after an initial adjustment period, they spring back and outperform the average college graduate for the later half of their careers,” Yakowitz writes. “Though they never catch up to their lawyer peers, the earnings of the median bar-failer does catch up to the 25th percentile lawyer.”

Yakowitz analyzed the results of a 1993 Census Bureau study and found that law grads who never passed the bar earned a median salary of $48,000—about $20,000 less than similarly situated lawyers.

Broken down by age group, the median salary of law grads who never passed the bar was $32,000 before they reached the age of 30 (compared to $48,000 for lawyers and $35,600 for college grads), $48,000 from the ages of 30 to 39 (compared to $64,000 for lawyers and $42,000 for college grads), $54,000 between the ages of 40 and 49 (compared to $83,600 for lawyers and $46,250 for college grads), and $62,849 between the ages of 50 and 59 (compared to $86,400 for lawyers and $48,416 for college grads).

Forty-nine percent of those studied who never passed the bar ended up in legal-related jobs. Other common job categories were managers and executives (12 percent), and accountants, auditors, human resources, and other management-related occupations (8 percent).

Despite the resilience of the law grads who never passed the bar, Yakowitz suggests their law school experience wasn’t worth the cost. The extra years of education don’t begin to pay dividends until later in their careers, she says, and likely isn’t enough to “pay back” harms in terms of earlier depressed earnings, lesser employment stability, and high education debt.

The results, she says, may provide a lesson to law schools.

“Legal education may be a disservice for the significant group of students that never pass a bar exam—a group whose composition can be predicted fairly accurately before they’ve even begun law school,” she says. “At the very least, law schools owe it to their prospective students to provide candid information about the risks of attending law school.”

The study was based in part on the After the JD study following 5,000 graduates beginning in 2000. Other sources were the 1993 Census Bureau study, including those who went on to law school; a 1994 bar passage study; California bar statistical reports; and new field research on nearly 200 law grads who failed a law exam.

Hat tip to TaxProf Blog.

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